Book review: Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson

Most books about punctuation aim to prescribe the rules for its use. Few take a single mark as their subject and eschew any such aim. The semicolon, adored and avoided in equal measure, is used with joy, anxiety, flair, and deep uncertainty. But where did it come from? Why is it perceived as difficult? And how should you use it anyway?

Cecelia Watson’s welcome biography Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (Ecco, 2019) sets out to examine these questions, in some cases not so much answering them as subverting their assumptions. As a historian, writing teacher, and philosopher of science, she is well equipped to tackle this thorny field.

Watson is also, significantly, a reformed stickler who outgrew her annoyance at supposed lapses in approved usage. Semicolon spends little time on rules. What may seem a strange omission makes perfect sense as Watson instead proceeds to show how diversely those rules have been advanced by different authorities at different times – and how authors have continually disregarded them in the service of style.

This variability serves as a prism through which Watson explores the subtleties of English prose as reflected in the semicolon, ‘charting its transformation from a mark designed to create clarity to a mark destined to create confusion’. The semicolon, she writes,

is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated, so that in this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.

On its arrival, in a text published in 1494, the semicolon denoted a pause – a kind of ‘supercomma’ – before taking on a mainly grammatical function. This shift reveals the mutability of punctuation and the vexedness of its formal treatment. Though early grammarians ‘sought clarity through rules, they ended up creating confusion, and the semicolon was collateral damage’.

This had more disastrous consequences than compositional complication. Semicolon details a years-long uproar in the early 1900s over a ‘semicolon law’ that interfered with liquor consumption in Massachusetts, and a far more disturbing case involving a death sentence that hinged on the absence of a semicolon. Watson’s conclusion may unsettle some readers:

No matter how precise you are with your punctuation, and no matter how carefully constructed the legal rules for punctuation use and interpretation might be, there will almost always be a way to cast doubt on the origins of a punctuation mark, or on its original intended meaning, or on its most valid construction given its context.

Football manager Bill Shankly famously said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. … I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ The same could be said of punctuation – or indeed typography. And though I don’t share that particular passion, typography fans may savour Watson’s vivid descriptions:

Garamond’s semicolon is watchful, aggressive, and elegant, its lower half a cobra’s head arced back to strike. Jenson’s is a simple shooting star. … Palatino’s is a thin flapper in a big hat slouched against the wall at a party. Gill Sans MT’s semicolon has perfect posture, while Didot’s puffs its chest out pridefully.

The longest chapter in this short book (188 pp., excluding notes) assesses examples of semicolons in literature. Though Chandler seldom deployed it in his celebrated fiction, in his non-fiction he used it discerningly – sometimes ‘illegally’, though Watson is persuasive on its effectiveness. Also featured are Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, Henry James, and Herman Melville; Moby-Dick has around 4000:

The semicolons are Moby-Dick’s joints, allowing the novel the freedom of movement it needed to tour such a large and disparate collection of themes. … Just as sailors needed instruments to wander out past sight of shore, Moby-Dick required writing technologies that could allow it to venture out beyond the genre constraints of its time …

Watson’s metaphors are adept: a semicolon can be ‘like a stone skipping across water’, or a ‘tantalizing veil shimmering between the two halves of the sentence, showing us just enough to let us dream’. She neatly refutes the idea that semicolons are somehow elitist. And there are thoughtful, roving digressions on the value of ambiguity, the politics of dialect, and the ethics of pedagogy.

Semicolon is a lucid, learned, and entertaining monograph that offers a lively examination not only of an infamous piece of punctuation but also of the complexity and profundity of writing itself. In doing so it underscores the importance of creativity in communication and the need for flexibility in our perception of it.

You can read a sample and order Semicolon from its publisher, Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, who kindly sent me a copy.

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15 Responses to Book review: Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson

  1. bevrowe says:

    I’d love to read this book. But £41 for 188 pp?

  2. astraya says:

    About half an hour before I read the email from WordPress about this post, my editor suddenly exclaimed “Doesn’t anyone know how to use a semicolon?” (with regard to an article he was editing). Very soon after, he said “Or a colon?”.
    I said “You’re obviously suffering from colonic irritation”.

  3. […] And if you’re a grammar nerd like me, you’ll understand the appeal of Watson’s book on that wonderful, versatile little punctuation mark, simply titled ’Semicolon’, which I discovered via Stan Carey’s review.  […]

  4. So ugly! There’s always some other option to prevent using this eyesore… As a translator, I will sometimes keep it in technical or legal texts but refuse to include it in anything literary or other texts to be read for enjoyment.

  5. Michael Vnuk says:

    I like the way you’ve described this book as a ‘biography’. Sounds like an interesting book. However, the layout of the cover doesn’t make me see semicolons. I see three circles (possible full stops) rammed together. Perhaps they are ellipsis points? Then, below a line of text are three commas rammed together. The line of text and the ramming together makes me connect the components horizontally. Only the repeated colours (top and bottom) points to the components being read vertically as semicolons.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It is an interesting book. For me the circles were too close to be naturally perceived as an ellipsis. The colour design, the circles’ proximity to the ‘commas’ below, and most of all the book’s title produced the desired effect.

  6. maceochi says:

    I typed four semicolons in size 72 and put them in the four fonts mentioned in the quotation. I can see what the author means.

  7. […] Book review: Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson […]

  8. stuartnz says:

    Thank you for yet another excellent recommendation. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, despite knowing that the enthusiasm with which I read her defence of letting language live and breathe probably constitutes the very definition of “confirmation bias”. So be it; the book was fun and informative, and I am (again) indebted to you for the tip-off.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re very welcome, Stuart; I’m happy to hear you enjoyed the book so much. There was an element of confirmation bias in my reading of the book too, but plenty else to appreciate besides.

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